Some thoughts (a rant)

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Some thoughts (a rant)


Published on before 2005

Martin wrote:
So how much contemporary figurative art ... My question to all of you is: Don't you have anything nice to say?

Nice hornets? I probably should extend my metaphor.

I have mentioned before, in more than one way, that I feel sorry for many of the people I have known who drifted or were dragged or trained into the "modernist camp." I do know "modern artists" who have a great deal of talent. I even like some of the art they have turned to, but only because they have chosen to create "attractive modern art," which is to say they emphasize decorative qualities. I even believe that art history will have some kind words for whatever they end up labelling our current "modern art." Like it or not, modernism has certainly "liberated" the art world, and it probably needed some of that, just not liberation without solid education and the discipline necessary to excel. Personally, I think it could and should have been done without so much destruction of the older system, including its superior training system. As has been said, it is so tempting to attack the establishment (and then set up a new one). It is just unfortunate that so many people found themselves a cash cow with few redeeming features. Modern art as a goofy little brother would have been much easier to stomach.

On a day to day basis, my biggest gripe is almost jealousy. I want the opportunities that are available to artists pursuing the current establishment paths. I want to do art, not spend more than half my time wearing all those other hats. Though still in my thirties and pretty much immune to the mid-life crisis in its usual forms, I do feel what I think Virgil has referred to as "increasing urgency." I could never live long enough to explore more than a small fraction of the ideas I currently have, and I add ideas every day. When I started art, my vision of what being an artist would be like was something akin to what the modern artists have had. As much as I enjoy almost every branch of art with which I've been involved, the compromises I've had to make do not sit well.

I said "almost jealousy." Several pieces of the puzzle change that, but the biggest is lack of respect. I have a hard time respecting gimmicks, but it's much more than that. I sometimes feel an urge to slap myself on the wrist and say, "Don't begrudge them easier success," but it isn't even that. I know many gifted artists who have made great sacrifices to advance their skills. I respect their efforts, their gifts, their accomplishments, the skill level they've attained, and the work they produce. I just can't bring myself to respect much of what I've seen of the modern art world, whether its art, its artists, its promoters, its accomplishments, or its close-ranked elitism and resulting brutal backwash. If my resulting close-mindedness slights an occasional treasure, in the spirit of the backlash against anything Hitler might have liked/promoted, that injustice is nothing compared to what was done to so many artists, like Noguchi.

So you see, there is only so much I can come up with that's "nice to say" about an establishment at whose hands many friends and I have suffered. It seems there's a good bit of hornet in me, too.

I wonder how many artists resent modern art because it is just so "easy?" I respect effort and personal commitment to excellence despite great difficulties. Though I'm a firm believer that artists are stronger together than apart, there is an unavoidable sense of competition. I have a VERY hard time accepting being "beaten" by someone smearing elephant dung, or thinking of a skilled, imaginative, insightful technician like Norman Rockwell being "beaten" by someone dripping paint, or a gentle, excellent artist like Godward being "beaten" to the point of suicide by "easy" art.

I don't know Fred Ross all that well, certainly not personally, but I have a great deal of respect for what he has done and is doing. When the Association of Science Fiction Artists was organized, we learned early on that we needed non-artists (forgive me, but I include here amateur and hobby artists) to accomplish certain tasks and help fight certain battles. Maybe the art world will change even without voices crying out in the wilderness, in favor of a more traditional, artistically professional approach, but those voices should help shift and shape the changes.

One of the bitter ironies, to me, has been that the common man has never shown much interest or belief in modern art. I've never known a time when he didn't make jokes about it, while actually hanging something pretty or something to match the couch or something representational and personally important. There was probably a fair amount of modern art hung beneath the banner of the sixties' and seventies' rebellious brand of freedom, but I never liked it any more than I liked bell bottoms. "Ordinary people" can be sheep, in their own ways, as we all can, but they had none of the reasons the country-club set had for joining the modernists' flock. There is short- and long-term merit in supporting nineteenth-century art at this time. Any Deck the Walls proprietor or Sothebey's rep will tell you of its increasing popularity. Galleries in Oklahoma hang mostly realistic art. Abstract art definitely angles to the decorative here. Serious collectors - like Fred - do put their money where their mouths are. It is almost as important to support the artistic tradition from which contemporary realists draw as to support and encourage the living artists themselves. For the serious, usually wealthier collector, that often takes the form of a collection in which art from past artists well outnumbers that of contemporary artists. They have the buying power to get good, significant examples of past art. Those with smaller collections seem to go the other way, though the occasional bit of art with that important-dead-artist signature gets a prized place. The importance of valuing the art of past artists cannot be overemphasized. Alongside good reviews and successful shows, it helps form the yardstick by which contemporary art classified "in the tradition of" can be valued. When seeking corporate more than private commissions, that yardstick is awfully handy in beating one's way to a better living and resultant increased artistic freedom.

I could say plenty of bad things about realistic art over the centuries, including nineteenth-century Academic art and the establishment surrounding it. By that light, I could say bad things about the current status of America's great experiment in personal freedom, but that wouldn't be a patch on my desire to retain that freedom. I could say at least a few good things about modern art, what it has meant to people I know, and the lowering of certain walls. I'm just a romantic idealist who wants everything to be fine and wonderful and just how I want it, right now. If everyone involved can be happy into the bargain, then I would be content.

I studied history and warfare growing up, though, enough to know there are battles that have to be fought. If you honestly believe you can infiltrate the ranks of the current establishment and maneuver sufficiently therein to enact change for the better, then I suggest you do some more serious thinking and real planning. If after that you still believe, I genuinely wish you luck (and hope you would not hesitate to seek my support or advice). I would not be up to your task. I considered it, in one very modest form or another, but I did not have the financial luxury of risking crash-and-burn-level failure. The only thing I like doing as much as art is making my sweetie happy, and I could never picture her in the poor house because I insisted on some "damn fool idealistic crusade" (all due compliments to Obi-wan).

Again, I have to compromise, dog-gone-it, but then life is an endless series of compromises. When that woman violated my right-of-way at an intersection on the way out of the art-supply store today, I settled for grinning and pointing to the turn-signal indicator, a big compromise between my primal urges and an affront-ridden sense of "why bother; ignore it." She drove away with a nod and a sickly smile, hopefully better off than if I'd flipped her off, as she'd obviously expected with that long, searching look in her rear-view mirror. I use this example because it is somewhat like how I feel about modern art. I think it's mostly mixed-up, if not wrong-headed, and it took the place of something which was in great part gloriously on-course in its determination to examine life and all its complexities. I resist the urge to flip them off, not from ingrained politeness and restraint but largely because I perceive that many adherents of modern art are simply supporting what they were taught, without the education or strength to see any other way. Some of them exceed the baseline imposed by the system and create interesting art. Even if their basic artistic directions and goals had remained the same, a better education would have yielded better results, promise much closer to fulfillment. That woman could have no reason to expect me to respect her driving, or to expect me to trust her to do the right thing, next time. My life does depend on it. I have one shot at making my own little difference in my own little way, hopefully creating something worthwhile as I go. "Game over" only comes once. I think I got pretty much all the good I could get out of modern art pretty darn quickly. Varied influences are wonderful, and they inform my work. I don't have to look long at ant movement patterns or elephant dung or TV's on ladders (sorry, but I still can't get over that one), ad infinitum, to discount them as valuable resources in my artistic development, especially when there are so many valuable resources whose surfaces I barely have time to scratch. Now I better get back to focusing on what I do.

You've probably seen how hornets sometimes just seem to buzz around in circles, apparently accomplishing nothing. Sometimes a little kick helps with their sense of priority and focus. If you can present some examples of modern art in which you see value, I would appreciate your effort. I promise not to spit or rant without giving fair consideration, and probably not then. You seem well-educated and your opinions based on thought and experience, so that I don't doubt that you can find the gems hidden under the pond scum.

Thanks, Martin.